Thirteen people will remain imprisoned, eight of them for life, after Bahrain's high court upheld their convictions Monday for plotting to overthrow the state. The decision cements a deeply controversial case that has troubled human rights groups and the U.S. State Department.
The defendants were accused of participating in a “terrorist plot” during protests that erupted nearly two years ago as demonstrators agitated for greater democracy and a bigger voice for Shiite Muslims.
The unrest triggered a government crackdown marked by beatings and torture, according to an independent commission later created by the government to investigate police abuses.
In the year since the commission aired its findings, Bahrain has pursued reforms, such as retraining police and taking some officers to court, but activists say repression has continued. Government officials, meanwhile, say protesters have violently attacked police in an effort to destabilize the country.
Charges against the dissidents included creating an illegal group that aimed to overthrow the political system “using force and terrorist means,” as well as “calling for the change of the political system by force, insulting the army openly” and other offenses, according to state media. Among the detainees is activist Abdulhadi Khawaja, who undertook a months-long hunger strike last year in protest.
Their sentences, already upheld in September by an appeals court, range from five years to life in prison. Several others convicted on similar charges fled the country and were sentenced in absentia.
Bahraini officials have defended the trial as fair. As Monday's decision was announced, Atty. Gen. Abdulraham Sayyad told the Bahrain News Agency that the convicts had been given “full opportunities” to present their case before Bahrain's highest court.
Rights groups were unswayed. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights, co-founded by Khawaja, said the convicted dissidents had been subjected to serious abuses, from their arrests through their trial. In a statement Monday, Amnesty International said the convicts had "been imprisoned simply for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly."
The verdict is among a string of recent cases from Bahrain that have drawn international concern. British Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said he was "deeply dismayed," invoking reports that suggested some of the defendants "had been abused in detention, denied access to legal counsel and were coerced into confessing."
The United States, which sees Bahrain as a key ally in the Mideast, expressed concern over the case last year when the convictions were first upheld.
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